An advocacy group for the deaf, along with four deaf and hard of hearing individuals, filed two federal class action lawsuits today against Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), claiming discrimination under the Americans for Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed the lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. The suits claim the two schools deny equal access to thousands of online video and audio tracks by people who are deaf or hard of hearing due to failure to provide proper captioning for public online content, including massive open online courses (MOOC).
In this morning’s NAD news release, NAD CEO Howard A. Rosenblum said:
Online content represents the next frontier for learning and lifelong education Yet both Harvard and MIT betray their legendary leadership in quality education by denying access to approximately 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Check out this two-minute video of Rosenblum, included with the news release announcing the suits. If you don’t know sign language, you’ll need to enable the closed captions option in the YouTube video.
The lawyer representing NAD, Bill Lann Lee, is a former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. He said:
The civil rights laws apply not only to services offered in brick and mortar places. They require equal access to electronic services on the Internet that modern technology makes possible.
Christine M. Griffin, of the Disability Law Center in Boston, said neither suit is seeking money damages.
Our hope is that this lawsuit will set an example for other universities to follow. These lawsuits seek to have the schools reform their conduct, not money damages.
According to the suits, since Harvard and MIT receive federal financial assistance, they are subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The Two Complaints
Both complaints are over 25 pages long, but I found them to be worthwhile reading to better understand the breadth of the issues.
The four individuals named in the suits attempted to access online videos and audio across multiple online channels at the two schools. They quickly discovered content available to the public was not accessible to them, due to lack of captioning.
Beginning in December 2013, the NAD contacted Harvard repeatedly to address the issue of providing timely and accurate captioning.
In March 2014, the NAD began contacting MIT to request MIT ensure all online content had timely and accurate captioning.
For both schools, only a fraction of the videos were captioned. And videos that were captioned were inaccurate.
According to what I read in the two complaints, neither MIT nor Harvard have the policies, procedures, or practices in place to ensure accurate captioning. There is no current requirement from either school that captioning is a condition for content to be shared on the school online channels.
I will be interested in seeing how many colleges and universities take heed of the two complaints, and begin the process of creating requirements for captions in online content. In my opinion, it’s part of the process of producing online video and audio content.